When the SS first solicited bids for death-camp crematoriums, one manufacturer proposed a design resembling a Greek temple. It was rejected not because of its appearance, but because of its cost.
While such a juxtaposition of neoclassicism and mass murder seems unthinkable today, aesthetics played a key role in Nazism’s exterminist ideology. The perfection of the Aryan superman was contrasted with the perceived defectiveness of the Jew. The Nuremberg Rallies were visual spectacles, as were Leni Riefenstahl’s films. Indeed, Walter Benjamin defined fascism itself as “the aestheticization of politics.”
The Neue Galerie revisits a key point along this perversely arcadian allée to Auschwitz: the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition. On view were Cubist, Expressionist and Dadaist artworks confiscated from public and private collections, hung alongside placards and wall texts mocking them. Some of the very same pieces have been collected here, alongside officially approved Nazi art, ephemera and posters related to the original show.
The exhibit was a huge hit with the German public. Even so, things weren’t always cut and dry. Some modern artists were viewed favorably by certain Nazis, while officially approved artists eventually ran afoul of the regime. One of the great ironies underlying Hitler’s assault on modern art was that the writer who first drew a connection between modernism and degeneracy was a Jew, Max Nordau.
Ultimately, it was Hitler’s exploitation of the German people’s deep devotion to kultur that enabled his rise and “Degenerate Art” to occur. Thus, the Neue Galerie show suggests that the question surrounding the Holocaust was never, “How could the nation of Goethe descend into barbarism?” but rather, “How could it not?”—Howard Halle